Baptists' Traditions Make It Hard to Oust Sex-Abusing Clergy

By Terry Mattingly
Knoxville News-Sentinel
June 22, 2002

The clergy sexual abuse statistics were staggering.

Local reports from angry, hurt and humiliated laypeople were too horrifying to ignore.

So the assembled church leaders decided they had to say something and had to call for some kind of action because they were facing a nasty moral crisis.

"We encourage those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers," said their June 12 resolution. "We call on civil authorities to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors.

"We call on our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse ... as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases."

Thus, the "messengers" to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged that America's largest non-Catholic flock has been hit by waves of clergy sexual abuse affecting untold numbers of women, men, teenagers and children. The resolution, which passed with little opposition, called for "ministers of the Gospel -- whether they are pastors, counselors, educators, missionaries, chaplains or others -- to be above reproach morally, both within the body of Christ and in the larger community."

The intent is clear. Yet this statement also demonstrates why it will be hard for freewheeling and autonomous Protestant congregations to attack clergy sexual abuse.

While news media have repeatedly focused on abuse among Catholics, Protestant insiders have also long known that many of their own clergy -- especially youth workers and pastors who do counseling -- were breaking the laws of God and man.

"The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached 'horrific proportions,' " according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had "engaged in sexual intercourse with members" and nearly 40 percent had "acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior."

Sadly, this report added: "Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists."

Where does the buck stop when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow.

If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, "conservative" and "moderate" churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16 million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church, and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process?

"Just think of all the places where this process could go off the rails," said historian Timothy Weber, dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary near Chicago. "One church would have to take the initiative to voluntarily report the information on a bad pastor. Then another church would have to voluntarily go through the process of asking for information so that they can screen a pastor that it is thinking about hiring."

Some state conventions might have the staff and know-how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition's total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

"The fact is," said Weber, "there is no Baptist clearing house for this information -- anywhere. There is no one keeper of the files, nobody out there who has the power to intervene when something goes wrong and people start pointing fingers. There is no there, out there."

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic College and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.